Isla Holbox: Get Offline in Mexico’s Secret Island Paradise

A tropical low tech oasis where sun-drunk beach days, daydreamy scenes, and an off-the-grid vibe make a digital detox par for the course…

 

Just off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula – a two-hour drive and a half-hour ferry from Cancun – resides a slender little island escape where every day feels like a summer of serendipity.  No mega resorts. No cars. Just days spent sun basking, flamingo spotting, hammock napping, and gorging on fresh seafood platters with sand between toes.

Pronounced hol-bosh, Holbox bizarrely translates as “black hole” in Mayan, which couldn’t be a more off-base depiction of this dreamy color paradise. Candy-hued palapa shacks line vanilla-dirt roads, ombré waters come in every shade of aqua, and blazing tangerine sunsets are so special, they’re honored with a nightly conch ritual.

Holbox’s main street

It’s continually been hailed as the next Tulum, and The New York Times even ranked Isla Holbox among the top places to visit in 2016, but the island has somehow managed to evade the hype. Sure it fills up in peak season, like anywhere. And the odd chi-chi boutique, slick tapas bar, and boho-luxe hotel suggests Holbox is indeed taking cues from Tulum, but “chic” is no rival for this island’s refreshing authenticity. A scene Holbox is not.

Sorry, no Wi-Fi… talk to each other and drink tequila, reads a typical restaurant sign. A fitting philosophy for the chill-seekers who come here to unplug – and Holbox demands visitors relax with its slow pace, blissfully quiet shores, and sleepy island vibe. Wi-Fi has arrived on the island and is offered by most hotels, but it’s slow and unreliable at best, plus significant rain can leave the island without Internet altogether for days at a time.

There are no cars on Holbox, so getting around is done by bicycle, quad bike, golf cart (rent or hail one), or foot, but forget about the fancy footwear – with rain and unpaved white-dirt roads comes messy mud puddles.

Walls awash with street art

Where to Stay

Holbox hotels are largely palapa-style in design, intimate in size, and many feature pools which are on the small side, but can offer welcome refreshment from bath-warm sea temps. The island caters to all budgets, and pricing is largely determined by proximity to the beach – which is never too far away given the island is only a mile wide.

A good handful of properties offers hostel and tent accommodation for as little as $US 13 a night, and although they’re not beachfront, a number do have pools. Try Tribu Hostel, Hostel Che, and Hostel Cabanas Ida y Vuelta Camping. At around $USD 50, Hotel Casa Barbara is a popular budget option offering simple but adequate rooms, and a pool. It’s located a five-minute walk from the main square and the beach.

Beachfront hotels range from around $100 to $300, and many step style up a serious notch with boho-chic décor and an exclusive barefoot vibe. Villas HM Palapas Del Mar starts at $140, with private plunge pool suites on offer. Casa las Tortugas ($170+) and CasaSandra ($250+) are two standout boutique options, with prime beachfront spots a stone’s throw from the town center. Expect topnotch cuisine, gorgeous pools, romantic palapa daybeds for two, and a healthy splash of laidback exclusivity. It can pay to book ahead as limited rooms mean these places can sell out, but even at capacity, they don’t ever seem to feel crowded.

Villas HM Palapas Del Mar

Where to Eat and Drink

Aside from tourism, fishing is the primary industry – so seafood lovers have it made with fresh-as-it gets local catch on every Holbox menu. Lobster empanadas, anyone? They’re en pointe at Las Panchas, who’ve got the best-priced langosta in town. Isla de Colibri’s famous coconut prawns (crispy, golden, and sweet as sin), are best washed down with their giant fish bowl margaritas.

A little more refined is El Chapulim, which in place of a menu, offers a daily choice of four dishes starring ingredients procured that day. Our white fish with avocado and green chilli cream was exquisite, and their signature cocktail – mezcal, hibiscus and tonic – is a must. Viva Zapata is best known for ceviche – choose from fish, shrimp, octopus, or a mix of all three. Their margarita Zapata with cilantro, cucumber, pineapple, and chilli rim kick could be the best on the island. Don’t be deterred by Raices beyond-rustic beach setting – their phenomenal seafood platters could feed a village. Chic-seekers flock to Tulum-esque tapas spot, Luuma, where Mediterranean and Mexican flavors unite in sharable bites and a killer cocktail menu – with a sexy open-air vibe.

Raices Beach Club Restaurant

What to Do

 Isla Holbox is 26 miles long and just one mile wide, but don’t be fooled by its modest size. The waters surrounding the island are rich with marine life (great for turtle and dolphin spotting), and there’s plenty to see and do (or not)  – on land and water.

The best way to explore the island is by bicycle. Just about every hotel offers rental bikes for a nominal fee, otherwise there are bike rentals throughout the town center. It’s about a 15-minute ride to the island’s northeast where pink flamingos frolic. Take your bug repellent along for the ride as mosquitos are rife, or kayak or paddleboard instead.

In addition to transfers to and from Cancun airport, VIP Holbox offers a range of tours and outdoor activities such as kayaking under the stars or through the mangroves, driving all-terrain vehicles through Mayan jungle, and snorkeling with whale sharks (June through September). On our VIP boat trip to neighboring island, Cabo Catoche, we line-caught our own fish, then ate it as ceviche right there on the beach.

All of that activity can call for a massage (blissed out shacks line the beachfront); and frosty margaritas, of course – best consumed on a swing… at the beach… at sunset.

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